WEXFORD - There are a number of reasons why North Allegheny is the top-ranked Class AAAA team in the state and the top seed in the WPIAL playoffs.
The first is quarterback Mack Leftwich, who entered Friday's first-round game with Altoona with more than 1,700 yards. The second is running back Alex DiCantis. The third is a defense that has recorded three shutouts. Add nearly 100 players on the roster, including Michigan lineman recruit Patrick Kuglar, and you get an unbeaten team.
All of those forces were in play against the Mountain Lions, except DiCantis, who was held out with an ankle injury. Leftwich threw for 199 yards and two touchdowns, backup running back Josh Bergman scored three TDs and the defense pitched a shutout until the fourth, when the Lions scored twice in a 42-14 loss at Newman Stadium.
"That is one incredible football team," Altoona coach John Franco said. "They're in another league, another class. They are very well coached, and they are great players from a great program. All of the publicity they get is well-deserved. They're going to be tough for anybody to beat."
"I'm happy how we played offensively and defensively in the first half," NA coach Art Walker said. "Mack is picking up where he left off last week. He's very calm and level-headed in the pocket and doesn't give up bad plays."
The Tigers (10-0), who rolled up 435 yards in offense, and the Lions, held to 132 yards, exchanged turnovers and an Altoona punt on the first three possessions until Leftwich got it going. The Stephen F. Austin recruit, who completed 8-of-12 passes, threw a 19-yard TD pass to tight end Zach Lyon 4:31 into the game.
It only took one play on NA's next series as Leftwich threw a perfect bomb to Elijah Zeise, who took it the rest of the way for a 78-yard scoring connection. The PAT was block, leaving the score at 13-0.
"I think in the past they've been pretty one-dimensional with just pounding the ball," Franco said. "This kid really makes them explosive. He can throw the ball with the best of any of them, and he's such an innovator when he's back in the pocket. When things break down, he creates."
On the next series, Altoona quarterback Brennan Luciano, who completed 8-of-15 pass for 100 yards, fumbled after getting sack on third, and NA lineman Rudy Ceniceros recovered at the Altoona 21. Six plays later, Bergman scored from the 2, and the Tigers coverted the two-point play.
Gregg Garrity, the son of the former Penn State receiver with the same name, caught three passes for 122 yards. His second catch went for 36 yards to the Altoona 14. Six plays later, Bergman scored on a 1-yard run. Bergman scored on another 1-yard run with 38 seconds left in the first half, and the PAT made it a 35-0 mercy-rule game.
"[Bergman] is a young kid learning," Walker said. "He's got to learn not to put the ball on the carpet, but he's getting better. It's a tough situation for a young guy to be in a playoff game, but I think he grew up tonight, and he'll be better."
Many of the NA starters, including Leftwich, were on the sideline to start the second half. One Tiger who wasn't was Garrity, whose weaving, third-quarter sideline-to-sideline 77-yard TD reception from backup QB Cage Galupi was NA's last score.
"That showed their athleticism pretty well," Franco said. "There were 11 guys that he outran. We didn't quit. We went after him, but we didn't have the speed to stay with him. And he's not even their most explosive kid. He might be fifth or sixth."
The Lions managed two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Avery Howsare scored on a 2-yard run with 9:33 remaining, and Tyler Wray scooped up a fumble and returned it 33 yards to the end zone less than 2 minutes later. Altoona recovered four NA fumbles in the game.
"The thing that I was most proud of our kids is even though we were overmatched, we never quit," Franco said. "They battled from the first play of the game to the last. The only thing that was upsetting was we gave them two easy scores off of two turnovers in the first quarter. That's unusual for us because we have not turned the ball over much this year."
The Lions finished the season with a 4-6 record, one more win than in 2011, and Franco, in his first year of his second stint, is encouraged.
"There were a lot of positive points in this," he said, "but we've got a long way to go. We really need to change the culture of the program. We're starting to do that. We're not even close to where I would like it to be. It's going to take a lot of work, but the kids that we have are workers."
Notes: NA has outscored its opponents 397-51. ... The Tigers will play Bethel Park, a 31-20 winner over McKeesport, in the next round. ... Kevin Given led Altoona in rushing with 35 yards on 10 carries.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Altoona0 0 0 14 -14
North Allegheny13 22 7 0 -42
NA-Lyon 19 pass from Leftwich (Buchert kick), 7:29
NA-Zeise 78 pass from Leftwich (kick failed), 4:03.
NA-Bergman 2 run (Lyon kick), 10:42
NA-Bergman 1 run (Buchert kick), 6:08
NA-Bergman 1 run (Ziolkowski kick), :38
NA-Garrity 77 pass from Galupi (Buchert kick), 6:01
A-Howsare 2 run (Savino kick), 9:33
A-Wray 33 fumble return (Savino kick), 7:35
RUSHING: Altoona-Givens 10-35, Mencer 2-10, Howsare 4-6, Barnes 6-3, Luciano 8-(-22). North Allegheny-Idowu 9-85, Bergman 15-63, Leftwich 4-12, Galupi 2-2, Sullivan 1-2, Cully 2-0, Neugebauer 2-(-3), TEAM 1-(-2).
PASSING: Altoona-Luciano 8-15-1-100, Diviney 0-1-0-0. North Allegheny-Leftwich 9-12-0-199, Galupi 1-1-0-77.
RECEIVING: Altoona-Ward 5-45, Diviney 1-42, Barnes 1-9, DeCriscio 1-4. North Allegheny-Garrity 3-122, Zeise 1-78, Lyon 2-27, Coniker 1-25, Edwards 1-13, Cox 1-11.
INTERCEPTIONS: Altoona-none. North Allegheny-Coniker.
Passing (comp.-att.-int)8-16-1 9-13-0